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Of the various settings or contexts that shaped the Modernist crisis in Roman Catholicism a century ago, none was closer to the bone of the protagonists than church life itself. The Modernists were, after all, engaged in what they saw as a necessary church reform movement. Their concern was with the intellectual vigor of Catholicism in the modern world. The most conspicuous element in their immediate church context was the “obscurantism” (Wilfrid Ward) that they ran up against in infuential circles. The degree to which it gained the upper hand, making a crisis out of a controversy, requires explanation.
After all, the Modernists' pursuits were predominantly “academic.” They scarcely touched upon the burning issues of church and state that preoccupied bishops and curial officials. Moreover, Pope Leo XIII (pope from 1878 to 1903) was calling for a renewal of ecclesiastical studies to bring them up to par with the challenges of the modern world. In these circumstances, reform-minded scholars who were ecclesiastics could well have expected some elbowroom for revising conventional positions. The mobilization of anti-Modernism was so effective, nevertheless, that a full battery of papal condemnations was loosed upon them in the pontificate of Pius X (1903–1914), especially from 1907 onwards. Where did this anti-Modernism come from? What were its sources of strength within the Catholic communion?